Looking back, those family dinners were, my aunt says, "simple yet haute cuisine at the same time." I wonder what my hardworking grandmother would have thought of the quote included in last month's New York Times obituary of Julia Child, who reportedly said she "never quite saw the point" of Italian food. "I don't think it's a real cuisine," Child added, "because you don't do much."
And what does her successor as the reigning PBS culinary queen, Lidia Bastianich, think of it?
"I knew Julia Child over 10 years. I cooked for her," Bastianich tells me by phone from New York. "And in my experiences, she was always very positive about Italian food. She understood that there's nothing pretentious, nothing fake about this style of cooking and that it reflects the Italian people. The real essence of any cuisine is that it serves to give pleasure, to nourish and to nurture the culture. And there's no better cuisine than the Italian to represent those ideals."
As a second-generation Italian-American, I agree that no one was better at simultaneously nurturing, nourishing and giving culinary pleasure than my grandmother, particularly during Sunday afternoon suppers when the good china was set on the tables and all of my aunts (even the two who hadn't "officially" spoken to each other in years) and uncles gathered to eat.
The closest thing Kansas City has to that particular family dinner is served every Sunday night at Bastianich's namesake restaurant in the Crossroads District, Lidia's Kansas City. The Lidia's Sunday Sauce dinner -- enough to feed three and still provide leftovers -- evokes all kinds of satisfying memories. Honestly, if there had been a couple of World War II vets exchanging stories and the sound of a kid getting smacked upside the head when I was there, I would have experienced déjà vu.
The Sunday-night tradition of offering family-style meals was instituted at Lidia's 4 years ago, about the same time chef Dan Swinney took over the kitchen from Linda Duerr (who was then snapped up for Frondizi's by restaurateur Jimmy Frantze). Swinney is a brilliant translator of Bastianich's distinctive style, which leans toward Italian-American cooking only on rare occasions. One of those is the Sunday Sauce supper, which combines a heaping platter of spicy sausage, fork-tender pork shoulder and savory braised meatballs that are nearly as big as bocce balls. Served with a steaming mound of rigatoni and crispy slices of bruschetta, it's not just as good as my late grandmother's version -- it's better.
I might have eaten more of the meats and pasta if I hadn't already overindulged on family-style fritto misto (a platter of crunchy fried calamari, shrimp, onion and zucchini) and a perfectly dressed Caesar salad blanketed with sheaths of shaved Parmesan. I was sharing the meal with my friends Marilyn and Lou Jane, but the amount of food was daunting even for the three of us.
"I like this place," Marilyn said. "Even when I order something I don't like, I'm always still happy with the atmosphere and the service. And the desserts, of course."